On Sunday 2 July 2023, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate announced the sad news that Rev Professor Austin Patrick Cooper OMI AM had died that morning at Epworth Hospital in Melbourne.
Giving thanks for his ‘extraordinary life and ministry’, Australian Provincial Fr Christian Fini OMI paid tribute to Fr Austin’s 72 years as an oblate and his ‘significant and influential academic career’, remembering him as ‘a man of prayer and deep spirituality’ who had been ‘inspirational to many students with a great kindness and a lovely sense of humour’.
Remarking on the significant influence Fr Austin had had on ‘the human and spiritual formation of many Oblates, lay people, religious and priests in Australia’, he said he would ‘be greatly missed’.
Austin Cooper was born at home in Sorrento, Victoria, on 14 January 1931. He was delivered by the local GP, whose young son was disappointed to learn that the Cooper family’s new ‘baby Austin’ was merely an infant, not the latest model of the popular English automobile.
The Coopers had lived in Sorrento for many generations—his grandmother’s family had been in the district since the 1830s, and his grandfather purchased the Sorrento Hotel in the 1890s. Austin’s middle name, ‘Patrick’, was in honour of Fr Patrick O’Reilly, a regular guest at the hotel and an old friend of the Cooper family, who would occasionally celebrate Mass for the locals in the years before the Oblates arrived there in 1926.
Austin spent his primary school years at St Joseph’s parish school in Sorrento, one of about 25 students taught by two nuns. Growing up during the Depression years in what was then a relatively small town, he would later recall being struck by how often Sr Alberta, one of his teachers, would pray for local families who were without work and down on their luck, and also by the generosity of the people of Sorrento towards those who were struggling.
He spent his secondary-school years as a boarder at Assumption College, Kilmore, before studying law for a year at the University of Melbourne. Feeling a growing call to religious life—and after briefly flirting with the idea of joining the Marist Brothers, whom he’d come to admire during his years at Assumption—he joined the Oblates in March 1950 at the encouragement of Fr Tom Hipwell OMI, returning to Sorrento to commence his novitiate.
From there he was sent to Kidalton Abbey, at Piltown in the south of Ireland, to study for the priesthood. He would later recall his seminary years with great affection. ‘One could not find a more beautiful part of the world,’ he said, ‘and every day I just rejoiced in the beauty of the place.’ While the relationship between the seminarians and their teachers was marked by a greater formality than he had been used to in Australia, he was nevertheless greatly influenced during these years by his spiritual director Fr JC Daly, with whom he kept in touch, and by Fr Dan Long, the rector of the seminary, whom he described as ‘quite remarkable’ and ‘a very broad, well-educated man’. He would later reflect that his academic formation at Kidalton prepared him well for the reforms that would come with the Second Vatican Council. He was ordained at Kildalton Abbey on 16 September 1956, completing his studies in June 1957.
Arriving back in Australia later that year, just a few years after the Oblate missions in Australia became their own province, he worked initially at the public chapel at Eagle Junction in Brisbane while commencing a BA (Hons) in history at the University of Queensland. In 1959, while continuing his studies, he joined the teaching staff of the recently established Iona College, teaching Grade 5—an experience he ‘enjoyed immensely’ and that launched him on a long and distinguished career in education.
Recognising the young priest’s potential as a teacher and scholar, the Oblates nominated Fr Austin to be the first rector of the future St Mary’s Oblate Seminary, to be established in Mulgrave, in Melbourne’s east. To prepare for this ministry and gain experience of scholasticate life, he was sent to study in the scholasticate of the Eastern American Province, Oblate College, in Washington DC. While there, he completed an MA in history at the Catholic University of America and would later complete his PhD (on the Oxford Movement, an enduring interest) at Monash University in 1972.
On returning to Australia in 1963, he initially lived at St Joseph’s at Lovely Banks in Geelong, along with Fr Pat Slattery and four first-year scholastics, before moving to the new seminary in Mulgrave when it was completed in August.
As founding Rector from 1963 to 1973, he forged a close relationship with the nearby Monash University (where he was also a part-time member of the Department of History), and broke new ground by combining the traditional seminary training in philosophy with a university degree.
Having been invited by Archbishop James Robert Knox in the late 1960s to chair a committee to advise on establishing a unified faculty of theology for Catholic houses of formation and seminaries, he went on to serve as foundation Master of the newly formed Catholic Theological College (CTC) in Melbourne from 1972 to 1976, and also served as Vice-President of the Melbourne College of Divinity from 1974 to 1976.
In 1976, he was appointed Australian Provincial of the Oblates, serving in this role until 1983, and also served as President of the Melbourne College of Divinity from 1976 to 1978.
Having lectured at CTC since 1972, he was appointed for two further stints as Master (in 1992–1994 and 1998–2002) and continued as a professor in the Department of Church History until 2022. Along with colleagues Sr Frances Baker RSM and Rev Dr Max Vedola, he regularly led overseas study tours as part of his courses in Christian spirituality.
In 2004, he was made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for services to theological education.
His areas of academic expertise included his ‘friends’ Julian of Norwich (the subject of his book The Cloud of Unknowing: Reflections on Selected Texts, 1991) and St John Henry Newman (on whom he wrote A Developing Spirituality, 2012). Among his many other publications, he also wrote a history of the Australian Oblates, A Little by Ourselves (1994).
Announcing the news of Fr Austin’s death to the College community, Master of CTC the Very Rev Dr Kevin Lenehan wrote, ‘His legacy for the College and University, for ecumenical relations, and for his Oblate community is immense, and his passing is keenly felt by all.’
Explaining that Fr Austin’s health and strength had gradually deteriorated since receiving some medical treatments earlier this year, Fr Kevin said he ‘remained lucid and communicative until his final hours, and even in his last days would not completely rule out the possibility of leading another study tour to European sites of Christian heritage and in the footsteps of his beloved JH Newman!’
Fr Max Vedola, a fellow church historian, described him as a ‘gifted scholar and teacher’ who had ‘an extraordinary ability to bring to life the Church’s diverse history and spirituality over the ages, especially in the life of the great saints, mystics and spiritual writers
He will be remembered by many as a fine teacher, a gracious spiritual guide and a gentleman.
Quoting Pope John XXI’s observation at the Second Vatican Council that ‘history is the teacher of life’, Fr Max paid tribute to Fr Austin ’s ability ‘to integrate history, spirituality, theology, art and architecture to communicate the great truths of our faith.’
Fellow Oblate and CTC faculty member Rev Dr Daniel Szewc OMI was particularly influenced by Fr Austin’s ‘passion for the mission of Christ’. As his doctoral supervisor, Fr Austin guided and challenged him, ‘but he also mentored me to see in academia an expression of our Oblate missionary charism. ‘His words “When I teach a class, it is preaching of the Good News” have been inscribed in my memory.’
Fr Daniel will also treasure a conversation they had a couple of weeks ago about Fr Austin’s plans to preach a homily every Sunday in January at St Thomas’ in Portsea. ‘He was going to make a series of homilies dealing with one topic so that he could take the locals and holidaymakers on a spiritual journey. Evangelisation was his spirituality.’
Dr Chris Morris had ‘the great privilege’ of teaching with Fr Austin at CTC for 10 years. ‘He combined great scholarship with such a light touch, with wonderful anecdotes and humour. He drew everyone into the great spiritual teachers and made us feel like they were in the room with us,’ he recalled.
‘More than anything though, Fr Austin communicated holiness and wisdom. You always walked away from an encounter with Austin feeling lighter somehow, freer to be yourself. What an extraordinary gift he was.’
Fr Austin himself spoke in recent years of the ‘great pastoral challenge’ that had informed everything he had done:
How do we give people a sense of mystery, a sense of the divine, a sense of the loving providence of God in a world which really doesn’t want to hear about God?
At last year’s annual Knox lecture, a panel discussion focussing on CTC’s past, present and future, he remarked that the night—part of the College’s 50th-anniversary celebrations—was an opportunity to ‘re-member’. And when we ‘re-member’, he said, ‘we put Humpty Dumpty back together again, don’t we? We try to put together our own story.’
As we remember Rev Professor Austin Cooper OMI AM, we give thanks especially for the way he helped so many over the years to bring their own stories together with the story of the Church, graciously helping to form them in the broad and deep spiritual traditions of the Catholic faith.
A Vigil Mass for Rev Professor Austin Cooper OMI will be held at St Mary’s Star of the Sea Sorrento, on Tuesday 11 July at 7pm.
A Requiem Mass will be held at St John Vianney’s Church, 23 Police Road, Mulgrave, on Wednesday 12 July at 1pm.
The Requiem Mass will be live-streamed here.
All photos courtesy of Catholic Theological College.